Young woman looking off into the distance

Say Yes Opens Doors to Dreams

Annual Report: 2021

Syracuse University College of Law student Mazaher Kaila recently took a break from final exam preparation to reflect on how her life might have gone had her family stayed in its native Sudan.

“Where I come from, there are no aspirations or dreams or goals for women or for girls like me,” she said. “By age 15 or 16, we’re married. I would have had about six kids. The highest education I would have had is high school.”

She was 4 when her family moved to Central New York, where she attended Syracuse public schools. “As a Black, Muslim, female immigrant, I learned to stick up for myself,” she said. “I had to learn to argue my point.”

Those experiences laid the foundation for a law career. “Lawyers were the ones who were doing the work standing up for people,” said Kaila, who has just begun her final year of law school.

Kaila earned a Syracuse University bachelor’s degree in political science on a Say Yes Syracuse scholarship. She’s already networking with judges in Sudan, envisioning a possible career in international or immigration law. She hopes to make the path easier for women and girls seeking education and meaningful careers. She also wants to volunteer as a criminal defense lawyer.

“I’m still in tune with my Sudanese culture, but I’m teaching my mother the values of being American, being free, having the sense that you can have a dream,” she said. “Here people have opportunities.”

Say Yes Syracuse has sent nearly 5,000 Syracuse City School District graduates to state and participating private colleges and universities since 2009. The Community Foundation has administered the organization’s scholarship endowment over the course of its history. In 2020, we joined forces with Say Yes to provide administrative and governance support.

“When I was applying to colleges, I had to advocate for myself,” Kaila said. “I didn’t know anything about college until my freshman year in high school. I had to figure it all out.” She graduated from Nottingham High School in 2015.

Say Yes was her first scholarship. “It opened so many doors for me,” she said. That included earning a Benjamin Gilman International Scholarship to spend a summer in France studying Muslim women. Through a Syracuse University School of Information Studies program, she visited Hong Kong, Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand to learn how large corporations use technology and information to address global challenges.

She transferred to Syracuse University after a year studying engineering at State University of New York Potsdam. While an undergraduate, she interned at the Onondaga County District Attorney’s office.

In law school, she’s president of the Black Law Students Association and a member of the Cold Case Justice Initiative. She also helped create the law school’s Diversity and Inclusion Resource Center at the College of Law library.

She hopes to serve as a judge someday. “I want to be a huge influencer,” she said. Law school is a step toward that dream. “This is the start to the person I want to be,” she said.

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